Netherlands in World War II

The city of Rotterdam after the German bombing during the German invasion of the Netherlands in May 1940.

Despite being neutral, the Netherlands in World War II was invaded by Nazi Germany on 10 May 1940, as part of Fall Gelb.[1] On 15 May 1940, one day after the bombing of Rotterdam, the Dutch forces surrendered. The Dutch government and the royal family saved themselves by going to London. Princess Juliana and her children moved on to Canada for additional safety.

The Netherlands was placed under German occupation, which endured in some areas until the German surrender in May 1945. Active resistance was carried out by a minority, which grew in the course of the occupation. The occupiers deported the majority of the country's Jews to Nazi concentration camps.[2]

Due to the high variation in the survival rate of Jewish inhabitants among local regions in the Netherlands, scholars have questioned the validity of a single explanation at the national level. In part due to the well-organized population registers, about 70% of the country's Jewish population were killed during the conflict, a much higher percentage than comparable countries, such as Belgium and France.[3] In 2008, records were opened that revealed the Germans had paid a bounty to Dutch police and administration officials to locate and identify Jews, aiding in their capture. But, uniquely among all German occupied areas, the city of Amsterdam organized an industrial action to protest the persecution of its Jewish citizens.

World War II occurred in four distinct phases in the European Netherlands:

  • September 1939 to May 1940: The war breaks out with the Netherlands declaring neutrality. The country is subsequently invaded and occupied.
  • May 1940 to June 1941: An economic boom caused by orders from Germany, combined with the "velvet glove" approach from Arthur Seyss-Inquart, results in a mild occupation.
  • June 1941 to June 1944: As the war intensifies, Germany demands higher contributions from occupied territory, resulting in a decline of living standards. Repression against the Jewish population intensifies and thousands are deported to extermination camps. The "velvet glove" approach ends.
  • June 1944 to May 1945: Conditions deteriorate further, leading to starvation and lack of fuel. The German occupation authorities gradually lose control over the situation. Fanatical Nazis want to make a last stand and commit acts of destruction. Others try to mitigate the situation.

Most of the south of the country was liberated in the second half of 1944. The rest, especially the west and north of the country still under occupation, suffered from a famine at the end of 1944, known as the "Hunger Winter". On 5 May 1945, the whole country was finally liberated by the total surrender of all German forces.


A bunker of the Peel-Raam Line, built in 1939.

Dutch governments between 1929 and 1943 were dominated by Christian and center-right political parties.[4] From 1933, the Netherlands were hit by the Great Depression, which had begun in 1929.[4] The incumbent government of Hendrikus Colijn pursued a programme of extensive cuts to maintain the value of the Guilder, resulting in workers' riots in Amsterdam and a naval mutiny between 1933 and 1934.[4] Eventually, in 1936, the government was forced to abandon the gold standard and devalue the currency.[4]

Numerous fascist movements emerged in the Netherlands during the Great Depression era, inspired by Italian Fascism or German Nazism. But, they never attracted enough members to be an effective mass-movement. The National Socialist Movement in the Netherlands (Nationaal-Socialistische Beweging, NSB) supported by the National Socialist German Workers' Party which took power in Germany in 1933, attempted to expand in 1935. Nazi-style racial ideology had limited appeal in the Netherlands, as did its calls to violence.[5] At the time of the outbreak of World War II, the NSB was already declining, both in numbers of members and numbers of voters.

During the interwar period the government undertook a significant increase in civil infrastructure projects and land reclamation, including the Zuiderzee Works. This resulted in the final draining of seawater from the Wieringermeerpolder, and the completion of the Afsluitdijk.[4]


"The new Reich has endeavored to continue the traditional friendship with Holland [sic]. It has not taken over any existing differences between the two countries and has not created any new ones."

German guarantee of neutrality, 6 October 1939[6]

During World War I, the Dutch government under Pieter Cort van der Linden had managed to preserve Dutch neutrality throughout the conflict.[7] In the inter-war period, the Netherlands had continued to pursue its "Independence Policy", even after the rise to power of the Nazi Party in Germany in 1933.[8] The conservative prime minister Colijn, who held power from 1933 until 1939, believed the Netherlands would never be able to withstand an attack by a major power. Pragmatically, the government did not spend much on the military.[9] Although military spending was doubled between 1938 and 1939, amid the rising international tensions, it constituted only 4% of national spending in 1939, in contrast to nearly 25% in Nazi-ruled Germany.[9] The Dutch government believed it would be able to rely on its neutrality, or at least the informal support of foreign powers, to defend its interests in case of war.[9] The government did begin to work on plans for the defence of the country.[10] This included the "New Dutch Waterline", an area to the east of Amsterdam, which would be flooded. From 1939, fortified positions were constructed, including the Grebbe and Peel-Raam Lines, to protect the key cities of Dordrecht, Utrecht, Haarlem and Amsterdam, and creating a Vesting Holland (or "Fortress Holland").[10]

In late 1939, with war already declared between the British Empire, France and Nazi Germany, the German government issued a guarantee of neutrality to the Netherlands.[6] The government gradually mobilized the Dutch military from August 1939, reaching its full strength by April 1940.[10]

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